Your Furry Friends Could Save Your Life This Funnel Web Spider Season
Summer is here which means so too are the deadly funnel web spiders.
They're an Australian nightmare. The aggressive, hairy arachnids have venom so toxic it can kill within 15 minutes.
While not every bite is deadly, it's near impossible to tell how much venom has been injected after a bite, so getting access to antivenom is vital.
The medicine is created with the crucial help of a furry creature one wouldn't typically associate with spider bites - the rabbit.
How is anti-venom created?
Once a week, Kane Christensen, Head of Spiders at the Australian Reptile Park, and his colleagues 'milk' adult male funnel webs for their venom. These are either caught by workers or by the public and remain alive.
The venom is then freeze-dried and sent straight to a government-run lab where it is re-hydrated and then injected into rabbits, Christensen told 10 daily.
"Dogs, cats and other non-primates are much more resistant to funnel-web venom," he said. They can withstand 100 times the human lethal dose.
While it isn't intense enough to harm the rabbits, it does kick start an immune response and with time, the animals become immune.
The antibodies are then taken from the infected animals, cleaned and developed into the antivenom given to humans, Christensen said.
How much venom is needed?
The Australian Reptile Park is the only place in the nation that milks funnel web spiders for antivenom.
There have been zero fatalities since the program began in 1981. It is now expanding to ensure the figure doesn't rise.
In Australia, 600 ml of venom needs to be milked from funnel web spiders each year to create enough anti-venom - that's up from the previous minimum of 300ml.
Christensen said the amount collected would eventually increase to 800 ml for two reasons.
"One, the population is increasing and when there is a lot of people the chance of a bite increases. Two, cities are expanding, particularly Sydney. People are building further out where funnel webs have colonised".
"We need to extract venom from between 300-400 spiders to get enough venom each year," Christensen said.
"The big problem we have is we use the male venom which is at its most toxic at the end of his life cycle. So every single year we have to start again".
To help meet their quota, the park has created a breeding program that is currently home to about 2,000 of these dangerous creepy crawlies. Unfortunately, they are all juveniles and are rendered useless this year.
What do I do if I see a funnel web?
Do not, I repeat, do not squash them -- they are valuable creatures.
"The best thing you can do is collect it," Christensen confirmed.
"They can't jump and they can't climb a smooth, vertical surface. So the best thing to do is grab a wide-mouthed jar and if it's walking, it will jump straight into it," he said.
Another option is to put the jar or container on top of the spider and slip something flat underneath it like hard plastic or cardboard before placing a cover over the top. Ensure it has holes for oxygen and either a moist cotton bud or soil at the bottom.
It's important to then take the spider to your nearest drop-off location which can be found here.
What do I do if I get bitten?
If you're bitten, it's important to immediately apply a pressure-immobilization bandage to the bite site and the adjacent limb. So, if you're bitten on the finger ensure you immobilize your entire arm, Christensen said.
And then stay as still as possible until emergency services arrive.
"If you get bitten, you'll know," Christensen said. "The quickest death recorded was within 13 minutes, that was a child".
10 daily has confirmed that antivenom stocks are healthy, so it should be available if you need it.
How big are funnel webs and where are they found?
Funnel webs come out to play in warm, humid weather. Females reach over 35 mm in length, males around 25 mm. While the head is generally a glossy black, the tail end and legs are covered in fine hairs.
They are generally found in sheltered, shady spots, which are always cool and humid, such as in logs or cracks between rocks, and unlike other spider species, they don't stray far. They tend to colonise an area. So f you find one, there's usually plenty of others about too.
"When there's a lack of rain, like this year, there is a lack of funnel webs," Christensen said, explaining that in an area he would normally find five or six easily, this year he has only found one.
But he warned that during the first rain, "they love coming out".
So come the wet, watch out for these deadly beasts.